PCBs: The Next Building Liability Wave?
First, lead paint; then, asbestos. Next: PCBs?
The legacy of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), once common in a wide variety of building materials, may be the next public health hazard confronting the building industry, according to a new white paper by the American Industrial Hygiene Association.
PCBs in the Built Environment details the latest research on the health effects of PCBs; evaluates exposure mechanisms and hazards; reviews relevant legislation and regulations; provides a risk assessment; and discusses remediation methods—all items that have gotten too little public attention, the organization says.
PCBs are manmade chemical compounds manufactured in the United States from the late 1920s to 1979, when they were banned under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA).
Until then, the compounds were used in many building materials, particularly caulk, grout, expansion joint material and paint. In paint and coatings, PCBs were used in additives as plasticizers and to enhance chemical resistance, durability and elasticity.
All of these materials were widely used in commercial and public buildings for generations.
Now, as eventually happened with lead, asbestos, some flame retardants and other materials, research has shown the public health repercussions of those long-ago decisions—and the probable need, according to AIHA, for a future abatement strategy.
"Both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) have published extensive material evaluating human health impacts from exposure to PCBs," AIHA reports.
Caulk containing PCBs was used in concrete expansion joints, and window and door joints from the 1940s to the 1970s.
The public-health risks include developmental effects in children, reproductive effects, and long-term risks for cancer development. Unlike lead and asbestos, however, PCB's risks are still typically unknown to today's building owners and occupants.
Removal and remediation methods for PCB-containing materials include roto-peening concrete.
As with other building materials, demolition of structures with PCB-containing materials can expose workers to the hazardous materials. Far more information on such exposures is needed, AIHA reports.
The report identifies several "potentially significant data gaps." It notes, for example:
A lack of exposure assessment data for building occupants, maintenance personnel and construction workers;
A lack of exposure profiles by building types and by types of occupants;
Unrecognized or mischaracterized PCB exposures in "many environments" because of few requirements that exposure sources be identified;
Inadequate respiratory protection for workers exposed to PCBs in vapor phase; and
Continued production of pigments containing PCBs. (The 1979 ban on commercial PCB production contained an exemption for PCBs that unintentionally produced as a result of manufacturing processes.)
Founded in 1939, AIHA is an association of occupational and environmental health and safety professionals, with 10,000 members working in the private and public sectors.